#1 In His Own Dream
Friday, November 1, 2013
# 1 In His Own Dream
#1 In His Own Dream
Music is unique because it appeals to our emotions more than our intellect. It is this quality that makes it a tool used by political groups when they are attempting to socially engineer the masses. In the 1930s Hitler uses Wagner's operas to glorify Germanic legends to motivate the populous toward oppression, and in 1999 New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen performs his American Skin (41 Shots) to protest the killing of unarmed Guinean immigrant by NYC police. Every generation is falls prey to its power; the dynamic is always the same, oppressors and the oppressed use music to unify the converted, and entice the undecided.
You might consider that the composer of music is the most important person, but this isn't always the case. Most often it is the performance that makes the piece resonate with the listener, not the composer. Therefore, while every genre has its performing artists who are proficient at their craft, there are artists who go beyond all expectations, and define a new genre of music. The only thing that seems to keep the music of these artists alive is that their work resonates with an audience, and that is more important than any other aspect of the creation process. An example of this scenario is the 1960s sixties singer/songwriter and instrumentalist, Paul Butterfield.
Historians often label him as a singer who popularizes blues music during the nineteen sixties, but this description lacks research and insight. Closer examination shows that he is an artist with a vision of a music that does not fit neatly into any genre, and yet it still resonates with a large international audience. It is possible that this is one reason that the music industry waits twenty-eight years after his death in 1987 to induct him into the coveted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Paul Butterfield's career as an artist shows that while his contributions to popular music of the nineteen sixties, and seventies are not always clearly defined, they are indeed important. There are very few performers who fit into this category, so his contributions warrant closer examination. Similar to so many other periods of social unrest, the 60s is a decade where the music acts as an indispensible bridge between the call of several groups for a change in the status quo. The efforts of these groups begin twenty years before, and only converge when they tap into the consciousness of the mainstream population. It is a movement which wants to act as mostly a passive aggressive participants, but this goal does not always prove to be practical. It will be the music that serves as the emotional glue and become the soundtrack of the movement.
Several decades after the fact, most of Paul Butterfield's music still sells, but to fully appreciate his contribution it is useful to put his work in a historical context. His music grows out of a conflict between an oppressor (the social conservatives), and the oppressed (left leaning young adults). This confrontation will begin in the United States during the 1940s, and over the next two decades spread to most countries in the Western world. While the young people are figuratively and literally out-gunned in this confrontation, they do have two important weapons at their disposal, idealism and music. It is here, before he is even born, that the seeds of his music will begin to germinate.
There are five central groups working in the leftist camp during the 40s and 50s, they are: the folk revivalist, the beats or beat generation, bebop jazz, the record collectors, and the traditional-jazz fans. These social groups will use music as the rallying cry.
Firstly, just after the second world war there is an innocent square dancing and folk dancing craze developing among young people in New York City. As we will see, it will grow into a social trend, and then explode into a powerful social movement. Twenty years later it will help to catapult Paul Butterfield's music into the international spotlight. Naturally, the music used in this dance craze is folk music, and that should be the end of the story, but it is only the beginning. The performers of this folk music are also artists who are rebelling against current mainstream social values. They hold pro-union, anti-war, left-wing, communist views, and are passively waging a war with folk music as the weapon of choice. The dancing fad fade, but the music, and its message turns into a new trend; then evolves into a social movement strong enough to cause social conservatives to feel threatened. The core of this group is made up of people such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Josh White, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and the centre piece of the movement, the Weavers. It is when they achieve significant commercial success in 1950 that American folk revival is officially a force for social change.
The Weavers first hit record will be a simple folk song, Lead Belly's Good Night Irene, then even more success with Woody Guthrie's Kisses Sweeter than Wine. These two hits will begin a string of mainstream hits for the next five years. As this folk revival gains popularity in the mainstream radio market, many of the left leaning politicians see an opportunity for votes, and attach themselves to the movement. However, the rise of these communist sympathizers frightens the right wing politicians who launch a counter attack.
In the early 50s, the cold war is on, and a second Red Scare is instituted by anti-leftist proponents. They tell the FBI that the Pete Seeger of the Weavers is a communist, then speculate that most of the other folksingers are also communists. This anti-left group insist that these artists be subject to blacklisting.(blacklisting is not reserved just for folksingers, but ruins the careers of many entertainers in the 50s) The assault on the reputations of the folksingers removes all their national television, radio and other high profile work opportunities, and most are financially crippled with unemployable. This attack on the voices of the folk revival should be the end of the movement, but the right wing tactic does not work.
Out of work, many of the musicians migrate to cheaper rents, and friendlier neighbor in the bohemian neighborhood of lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village. It is here that they congregate in coffee houses, house parties, hootenannies, other venues open to their ideas. This is where the folk revival, and its leftist agenda will regain strength, spread to almost every university, artist community across the nation, travel north throughout Canada, and then branch out to most countries in the western world. It will also will give birth to the singer songwriter, and become the soundtrack for the protest movements such as , the anti war movement, the American civil rights movement, women's movement to name only a few.
The folk revival also gives birth to Paul Butterfield's music. He grows up in the cosmopolitan, middle class neighbourhood of Chicago's Hyde Park which surrounds the University of Chicago, and like so many other university neighborhoods across the country, the message of folk revival is very prominent in the community. However, for Butterfield, and many of the other young Chicago musicians there is a conflict with some of the artistic demands made by the folkies. The revival is fairly strong at this point, and it has its self appointed leaders; they expect folk music to be played acoustically using traditional instruments. These self appointed curators are called folk purists (folk Nazis in some circles), and they do not approve of electric instrumentation. However, Butterfield is most interested in the electric blues played in the ghetto clubs of Chicago's Southside. It is here that he learns to play authentic blues from the masters of the genre, forms an electric blues band, and hones his performing skills.
So, when Butterfield and his band make their debut at 1965s chapter of the Newport Folk Festival, the supreme leaders of the folk revival are outraged. Many of the board members will shutter, and go to great lengths to block Butterfield's appearance at the festival. ( it will be fellow folk singer Peter Yarrow who will sway the board.) Then, after his outrageous performance, the darling of the acoustic folk revival, Bob Dylan, borrows Butterfield's electric band, and continues the assault on tradition. These memorable performances will place Butterfield in the history books, and catapult him into the international limelight as the person who successfully bridges the gap between folk, blues and rock. Folk music will never be the same after the July weekend in 1965. Bob Dylan's electric performance tends to get the most press, but many eye witness' still claim that Butterfield's performance at Newport is still considered as the highlight of the festival. Most of the songs Butterfield's band perform at the festival are standard blues, but it is the energy and sincerity of the performances that resonates with the audience. It also sends a signal to the older folk purists that the music is moving in a new direction.
The Newport performances also establish Butterfield as a young progressive artist, open to ideas from a variety of sources; so, it isn't surprising that he adapts the sensibly of the second group to his music. In the 40s, a group of young Columbia University students gather with the explicit intention of launching their own attack on the what they view as the hypocrisy of mainstream American values. Their weapon will not be simple folk songs, but rather the written word. The core members of this group are Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac; they will launch a social movement which is still active today. Kerouac will name their group the beats, (later the beat generation), they will create a very detailed list of social changes they want realized.
The beats reject the standard narrative of values set by the corporate elite, they believe in: maintaining a spiritual quest, pursuing and exploring American and Eastern religions, rejecting materialism, promoting the explicit portrayals of the human condition, supporting experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and promoting sexual liberation. Ironically, in spite of the fact that the members are students at Columbia University, they are also anti-academic too. The mainstream of the late 1940s and 50s consider these demands not only leftist, but also blatantly immoral. Similar to members of the folk revival, the beats will seek refuge in the security of Greenwich Village too. It is here that they will develop their message, gain followers and launch the beat generation.
By the late 50s, the beat movement is evolving into an important social force, not just in the United States, but in several western countries. The social right label them a bunch of bohemian hedonists, but hip young people love their message. Some examples of the beat influence are: The Beatles name themselves after the beats (Les Beats), rock artists like Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bono acknowledge them as major influences on their music; movies will be made about them; beatniks will become a name for a cheap corporate stereotype found in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to prime time television comedies, and of course they will act as the fathers of the 1960s hippie movement. Butterfield feels their influence, adopting many of their attitudes through his use of language, stage closes, stage demeanor, and his urban hillbilly haircut. However, the biggest influence the beats have on Paul Butterfield is their choice of music, bebop.
The soundtrack to the beat generation isn't folk, but jazz, and more specifically, bebop jazz. The bebop musicians too have an axe to grind with the establishment, but it doesn't have the same social scope of the beats. In the 1940s, young jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and few others are weary of the creative stagnation within mainstream big band swing, and they set out to create an alternative to that artistic establishment. They conclude that music must not be restrained by the artistic confines of danceable commercial tunes created by big swing bands; they call their new music bebop. Their new music will allow musicians the freedom to: play faster tempos, explore advanced harmonies and complex syncopation, use altered chords and chord substitutions, use asymmetrical phrasing, or intricate melodies, and free them to reduce the instruments in a band to saxophone trumpet, piano, double bass and drums. When the beats hear this bebop philosophy they see it as a perfect fit for their own initiative, and attach their movement to the music. In fact, they are so enthralled with bebop that they write novels in the style of bebop solos. Some examples of this style can be found in: Allen Ginsberg's, Howl (1956) , William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957).
Paul Butterfield has a dream of a new music too, one that does not recognize racial barriers or musical boundaries, so the combination of the beat philosophy, and the bebop approach to music will have the biggest influence on his own work in the 60s. It will inspire him to write, perform and record music which is predicated on experimentation; his band will write and perform the centre piece of the psychedelic movement, East/West. He will also thumb his nose at the quest for mainstream approval by not obsessing over the two minute pop single, and concentrate on improvised bebop based music. He will also hire several talented jazz musicians who will become important members of the music community for several decades. In addition, when Butterfield arrives on the 1960s music scene, no one before has used a diatonic harmonica as lead instrument in a horn based band. He will be the first musician to perform, and record the bebop influenced music on the tiny instrument. As a result of his approach to music in the 60s, he and several musicians from his band will set the benchmark for musicianship in blues, folk and rock during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In retrospect, these may seem quaint accomplishments, but in the context of the period, they are subversive and results have been incredibly influential.
As many parents will attest, young people of modest means can be very resourceful in their quest to challenge authority. As an example, the fourth group to influence Paul Butterfield's music are the record collectors. They too are rebelling against the mainstream values, and will use recordings of African-American blues as their weapon of choice. Recorded music on vinyl discs is not new in the late 50s, vinyl LPs (long play) first appear in the 1940s, but those discs are in mono format. Stereophonic sound makes its debut to the mainstream market in 1958, and immediately becomes very popular with coming of age baby boomers. Record labels recognize the social dynamic so they develop a marketing strategy which will focus on releasing reissues of old blues records. The plethora of reissues entices young people to start collecting, and then a minority of these people see their own opportunity and use records to further their cause.
Many of these collectors are artists who live, or congregate in and around Greenwich Village, and they develop an obsession with record collecting the way some people might collect stamps and insects. They already have a passion for blues, more specifically old blues from the early decades of the century, so the new hobby is a good fit. In the late 50s, the key person in this trend is white blues singer/guitarist, Dave Von Ronk. His spirit, music, and ability to lead becomes so influential in the neighborhood that New York music critic bestows upon him the very prestigious title of the musical mayor of MacDougal Street.
Von Ronk his fellow collectors reason: if an artist's obscurity is a product of an unfair mainstream corporate establishment, then he is deserving of some long overdue recognition. For example, Jack Kerouac's manuscript On the Road is rejected by publishers, and therefore warrants attention, Van Gogh does not sell any paintings during his life time, he too warrants attention. When this attitude is applied to blues music, artists such as: Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Fred McDowell, will be offered a second chance at a career with a unexpected audience. This attitude toward African-American blues, and the recording establishment will spread throughout western countries during the 60s, influencing many careers in the process. It is a passive aggressive anti-establishment initiative that will permeate the sensibility of rebellious young adults during the late 50s, and 60s, and remain active well into the 70s.
This trend of searching out over looked artists, and bringing their music to a new audience in an effort to offer them a second chance is very prominent in the 1960s folk festival circuit. Folk festivals advertize new finds, and more established artists make their own influences known, and publically endorse older artists, for example, Van Morrison (John Lee Hooker), Bonnie Raitt (Fred McDowell), Eric Clapton (Robert Johnson), and many others show regular support for the often forgotten singers of the past. The trend also gives Paul Butterfield an opportunity to acknowledge his teachers too. He spends his whole career promoting mentors like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Smokie Smothers, and Bo Diddley, by recording and performing with them. While the trend does seem to have calculated element to it, many interpret it as a sincere act of giving back to the people who inspire you to choose your career. It is a trend which is still very active in 2015 as Joe Bonamassa recently released a tribute album to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
The final social group to have a major influence on Paul Butterfield's music comes from an unlikely source, young conformists in Great Britain. The traditional jazz group or trad-jazz people are similar to the purists in the American folk revival movement because they are consumed with the idea of tradition, but that is where their similarity ends. Ironically, they will be unlikely instigators of the loud, aggressive 1960s blues revival, and inadvertently help catapult Paul Butterfield onto the international stage. These trad-jazz people think of jazz and blues as originating in New Orleans. In their minds the fathers of this music are artists such as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, and because of geography, they possess a blatantly naive image the African-American bluesman. They will paint an image of blues and the people who interpret it that survives to this day.
The beginning of their influence is 1950s London where there are active trad-jazz musicians like Roy Barber and Lonnie Donegan. They play jazz and blues in around London and on the side, promote tours of American blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy, Terry and McGee, Muddy Waters. In the late 50s, Donegan scores a hit record with Lead Belly's Rock Island Line, and he leaves Barber's outfit to pursue a solo career. (Donegan will pioneer music which influences bands like the Beatles; it's called Skiffle.)
When Donegan leaves Barber's band, he is replaced by Alexis Korner. As the amplified sounds of rock 'n' roll invade the mainstream airwaves, Korner changes the name of his band to Blues Incorporated and replaces band members with younger musicians, most of whom will become rock royalty in the 60s. For our purposes, the important additions to Korner's band are Charlie Watts on drums, Mick Jagger on vocals, Brian Jones on guitar and harmonica, Bill Wyman on bass, and finally Keith Richards on guitar. Together they form an electric blues band with a near obsessive interest in music from Chess records in Chicago. They will name their band after a Muddy Waters song, Rolling Stone, and the Rolling Stones are born. Many historians point to the Rolling Stones as the key band of the 1960s blues revival.
The Rolling Stones and specifically Jagger and Richards do deserve recognition for ushering in both a new era of white blues artists, but they also promote a very naive image of the music and the people who perform it. Unfortunately, Jagger and Richards see the image of the African-American bluesman as: male, surrounded in sex, drugs, he has a prickly personality, is often violent, passionate, wild, angry and he plays outlaw music. Notice two things, firstly the gender, they do not think of blues as a female art form, and secondly, they introduce the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll philosophy. It may seem like a calculated promotion on their part, but unlike Butterfield and his Chicago peers, they are probably just victims of their own fantasies.
The main reason Jagger and Richards are given any broad attention is because of their success in the mainstream pop music world. When they arrive in America in 1964, their popularity with white middle class teenagers affords them a massive platform to promote their own romantic idea of the blues, and they take full advantage of the opportunity. They are obsessed with the artists, the romantic culture of blues that they will tell anyone willing to listen of their undivided love for it. It is their promotion of the music that will set in motion the 1960s blues revival by taking the music from the periphery of American society to the middle of mainstream American culture. This is where Paul Butterfield and most other American blues singers benefit the most.
Paul Butterfield, and Mike Bloomfield are similar to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in that they are similar in age, socio-economic background, and love for blues, but as interpreters of the genre, they are very different. As mentioned above, Butterfield and Bloomfield don't learn to play blues from old records, but rather, as native Chicagoans, they travel to the ghetto bars on the Southside of Chicago, where blues is part of the daily social fabric. While there, they become close enough with some of the most respected interpreters of genre that they are afforded personalize lessons from artists like Muddy Waters and Little Walter. Jagger and Richards share none of that important experience, and consequently know little of the cultural nuances that Butterfield and Bloomfield understand. It is this important education that allows Butterfield and Bloomfield to take the genre of Chicago blues to its next logical position in history. Bloomfield will hold the title of America's first guitar idol, and Butterfield will go on to be the most commercially successful, respected white blues interpreter of 60s. If it were not for efforts of the Rolling Stones to bring American blues into the mainstream, audiences may never recognized the authenticity in Paul Butterfield's performances.
Contrary to popular myth, by the mid-60s, African-American blues has lost much of its native audience. The civil rights movement is in full swing, and many African-Americans view blues as part of their painful past. Also, there are younger African-American R. & B. artists like Ray Charles who are catering to a growing middle class, so blues is dying out in most communities. Art like language must keep changing to stay alive, and while the well intentioned folk revival goes to great pains to preserve the art form, it inadvertently does not encourage a natural growth. Paul Butterfield and a handful of other white, middle class American musicians show the folk purists, and the racist mainstream music industry that blues is very much alive. No other white artist of his generation has been able to demonstrate the ability to bridge all cultural expectations, and prove that race does not have to be a barrier to create great music.
Music is just a collection of sounds, even when those sounds are organized, it doesn't always tap into our emotions; it's the performance that resonates with us the most. It is during our coming of age years, when our emotions tend to be most vulnerable, and our ears are their biggest, that the music becomes part of our identity. The decade between 1965 and 1975 is a time of tremendous social and political unrest and when music acts as an important bridge between the various groups fighting for these changes. However, it is most often the performers who play the biggest roles in this music. The coming blogs will look how Paul Butterfield's music became an important part of that soundtrack.